It might be more than six months away, but the first step towards the 2012 IIHF World Junior Championship was taken earlier Thursday. USA Hockey unveiled the 40 skaters that have been invited to the 2011 U.S. National Junior Evaluation Camp. The camp takes place at the Olympic Center in Lake Placid, N.Y., August 6-11.
In addition to a series of practices and scrimmages, Finland and Sweden will bring select teams full of WJC candidates to compete against the U.S. Before the camp is narrowed down, a pair of U.S. split squads will take on either Finland or Sweden. After the initial cuts are made, the remaining American players will take part in three games, one against Finland and two against Sweden.
Keep in mind, there are often players that emerge later in the selection process that were not in camp. While only 40 skaters are invited to camp, there’s a larger list from which players will be evaluated throughout the season. Jamie Oleksiak came out of virtually nowhere last year to earn a spot in the pre-tournament camp in December, though he was ultimately cut. He’ll have another crack at it this year, as we take a look at each of the 14 defensemen invited.
On the blue line, the U.S. is going to have some very difficult choices to make come December. Over the last decade, the development among American defensemen has been off the charts. It’s become a real position of strength and in few birth years have defensemen been stronger than 1992.
Each Player is broken down by birth year, then alphabetically:
Adam Clendening — Boston University — The slick, puck-moving defenseman was a late cut from pre-tournament camp leading up to the WJC. The Niagara Falls, N.Y., native narrowly missed a shot at playing near home, and perhaps had added motivation in the second half of his freshman season at BU. He had a strong finish and looks to be a potential second-round draft choice in this year’s draft. He’ll be a favorite to make this team. Draft Eligible in 2011.
Justin Faulk — Charlotte Checkers (AHL)/Minnesota-Duluth — Faulk was perhaps the best freshman defenseman in the country last year, as he helped the UMD Bulldogs win their first national title. He was signed at the end of the season by the Carolina Hurricanes and played for Charlotte in the AHL playoffs. Only way he doesn’t make the U.S. National Junior Team for the second year in a row is if he’s in the NHL. Which is a possibility. More than likely he’ll be in Charlotte another year, and would be made available for the tournament. Drafted by Carolina in the 2nd Round, No. 37 overall, 2010.
Derek Forbort — North Dakota — The big, 6-5 defenseman out of Duluth, Minn., was part of one of college hockey’s best teams last year. He’s also vying for a roster spot on the U.S. National Junior Team for the second straight year. Forbort was good, not great in last year’s World Juniors, but has had plenty of time to build strength. He’d be near impossible to cut with his size and range. Drafted by Los Angeles in the 1st Round, No. 15 overall, 2010.
Kevin Gravel — St. Cloud State — Gravel has been on USA Hockey’s radar for a long time. He’s got tremendous size and plays a very steady, stay-at-home style. He’s going to have some work to do to make this team, because his biggest asset is his size. There are nine defensemen in camp that are 6-3 or taller. Still, he definitely deserves a spot in camp and will challenge some of the more established D-men. Drafted by Los Angeles in the 5th Round, No. 148 overall, 2010.
Justin Holl — Minnesota — Here’s a kid with a lot of upside and potential. A lot of people really like Holl as an athlete. He’s another guy with decent size and good skills. Like Gravel, Holl is going to have to put in a little extra effort, but is certainly in the mix to be part of this hockey team. He had a pretty good freshman campaign with the Gophers and will only continue to get better. He’s one to watch, for sure. Drafted by Chicago in the 2nd Round, No. 54 overall, 2010.
Stephen Johns — Notre Dame — If you want, size, strength and snarl, Johns has all of that. Sometimes to a fault. Johns had 98 PIM at Notre Dame last year, which for a college player is a bunch. However, his raw skills, skating and physicality bring an element Team USA may need. If Johns can play a smart, less risky game, he has a good shot at earning a spot. If not, he may be a risk Team USA is unwilling to take. Drafted by Chicago in the 2nd Round, No. 60 overall, 2010.
Austin Levi — Plymouth Whalers (OHL) — By most accounts, Levi is a tough customer who isn’t afraid to throw his weight around and takes care of his own end first. His physical skills will be what separates him from others in the camp. However, it’s going to be tough to beat out some of the more gifted two-way defensemen in this camp. He has a lot to prove in Lake Placid, but he’s obviously there for a reason. Very intriguing player. Drafted by Carolina in the 3rd Round, No. 85 overall, 2010.
Jon Merrill — Michigan — If Faulk was the best freshman defenseman in the country, Merrill was 1-B. His poise with the puck, high hockey IQ and great skill set made him a force for Michigan all the way to the national title game. He was also one of Team USA’s better defensemen in Buffalo last year. Since it looks like he’s returning to school, he’ll undoubtedly be leading the charge for the U.S. in Alberta. Drafted by New Jersey in the 2nd Round, No. 38 overall, 2010.
Jamie Oleksiak — Northeastern — Perhaps the most intriguing prospect available for the 2011 NHL Draft is this 6-foot-7 behemoth. He was cut from the pre-tourney camp last year, but the fact that he was there at all was incredible. His size and skill set make him very attractive for Team USA. It looks like, of the non-returnees, he’ll have the best shot at making the team. Side Note: Oleksiak has yet to play for the U.S. in IIHF competition and is a dual citizen as he was born in Canada. Some wondered if Canada would make a run at the big man, but his accepted invitation to this camp is a good indication he wants to play for the U.S. Draft eligible in 2011.
Jarred Tinordi — London Knights (OHL) — Tinordi had what many considered a down year at London last season. However, he has a history with USA Hockey as a captain of the 2010 U18 World Championship team. His size, physicality, and general nastiness make him an attractive option. However, he’s not going to be the only 6-foot-7 defenseman in camp now. I still expect him to be given every opportunity to make this team, but it’s no guarantee at all. He’ll need to have his best stuff in camp. Drafted by Montreal in the 1st Round, No. 22 overall, 2010.
The 1993 birth-year wasn’t the strongest or deepest for American defenseman. It didn’t help that this class comes on the heels of one of the deepest D corps in USA Hockey history. That said, the three 1993-born players invited bring a diverse skill set to camp and will all have an honest shot at making the club.
Brian Cooper — Fargo Force (USHL) — Cooper had an exceptional season with the Force, notching 33 points. He’s got good wheels, but not great size and that could end up being a big part of his uphill battle to make this team. However, he recently committed to Team USA head coach Dean Blais’s full-time employer, the University of Nebraska Omaha. He’ll be one of the youngest players and is the smallest defenseman in camp. He looks to be the longest shot to make the team, but shouldn’t be counted out altogether. He has time, too. If he’s not there this year, he’ll definitely be in the mix next. Draft eligible in 2012.
Connor Murphy — U.S. Nat’l Under-18 Team — Murphy has been one of the most talked about prospects for the upcoming draft since his stellar performance at the Under-18s (scored twice, including OT game-winner in gold-medal game). After an exemplary outing at the Scouting Combine, Murphy has proven he’s fully healthy, after battling injury all year long. There are a lot of quality 1992-born defensemen to overtake, but he’s a smart, mature player with great size and athleticism. He’s going to have to stay healthy throughout the season and play up to his abilities to have a shot. Draft eligible in 2011.
Robbie Russo — U.S. National Under-18 Team — He captained the U.S. U18s to gold in Germany and was Team USA’s best defenseman throughout the tournament. His poise with the puck and confidence in all areas of the ice make him a very attractive option. He’ll have to show the same poise in his freshman season at Notre Dame. Of the 1993-born players, I feel Russo (who might sneak into the second round of the 2011 Draft) has the best shot at making this team. Murphy’s got the better upside, but Russo has the tools right now to make the club. He’ll have to prove he’s that good against the stiff competition at this camp. Draft eligible in 2011.
Seth Jones — U.S. National Under-17/Under-18 Teams — If he wasn’t a special player, he wouldn’t have been invited. It is rare that an under-age player earns an invite to the summer camp for the Junior Team. Even more rare when that player is still two years away from being draft eligible. The big, 6-4 phenom would not have been invited if the staff didn’t feel he had a chance to make this team. The hype is warranted. He plays beyond his years and his physical tools are unmatched among his peers. Jones won U18 gold this spring and was right up there with Murphy and Russo in minutes. Because of his age, he is a bit of a long shot, but because of his talent level and maturity, I would not be in the least bit surprised if he makes this team. Kid can play. Draft eligible in 2013 (!).
This is a very formidable group of defenseman. There’s a lot of talent and also a fair amount of balance. You’ve got your puck movers, your stay-at-home guys, your power-play dynamos, and your crash and bang guys.
Just remember, a lot can happen in the next six months, so nothing is for sure. There are certainly guys that have a leg up on the others, but there’s always a few players that emerge out of nowhere, or guys that step up and surprise you. The Junior Evaluation Camp is but one step in the process. It’s a big one, but it’s also an early one. Based on previous experience, USA Hockey has a lot to look forward to with this group.
Coming up tomorrow, a look at the forwards. Sneak Peak: Expect to see the word “skill”… a lot.